PHILLIP’S SERMON ON THE DEATH OF HIS GRANDSON
3 CertaintyI’ll tell you two things about Nathan that may surprise you to hear. Firstly, Nathan was a sinner. Secondly, Nathan was certain of his salvation.
As one of Nathan’s grandfathers and on behalf of his family may I begin by expressing our thanks.
• Firstly, to the medical fraternity. Thank you to the staff of John Hunter Hospital where Nathan died, and the ambulance officers who attended to him several times in emergencies. We would especially like to thank the staff of Sydney Children’s Hospital who cared for him so brilliantly – trying everything possible to save his life and ease his pains.
• Secondly, to the members of church at Jannali whose loving affection, thoughtful actions and continued prayerfulness could not have been surpassed.
• Thirdly, to the staff and students of the Shire Christian School whose hospitality today is symptomatic of their support, love, care and devotion not just to Nathan but also to his siblings and the whole family. However, we’re here now, not to thank each other but to thank God: to thank him for the life that he gave us and has now taken from us; to thank God for the life of Nathan.
In many ways, Nathan was just one of us: born and living, eating, drinking, laughing and crying, just as we all are. There was nothing particularly unique about Nathan. He had no Olympic gold medals, he didn’t write a famous novel or a great opera. He didn’t have a PhD at 15 or have a singing voice that cracked crystal. There was nothing that would make him a celebrity or stand out and be remembered by everybody – other than his unusual cancer and his early death.
And yet, if you will pardon a grandfather saying so, his character, while not unique, was very impressive. Nathan wasn’t perfect. He knew it and he’d want me to tell you he sinned, and he sinned often. But in facing death – as he has for the last year – he had a consistent confidence in God that was disarming. He didn’t become self-absorbed. He continued to care for others and he stood out as different: as calm before the storm, as thoughtful when others were panicking, as kind when life seemed to be so cruel. He knew he was going to face his maker as a sinner in need of salvation, but as he wrestled with this, he searched the scriptures and developed a great certainty about his eternity.
For Nathan’s certainty of entering heaven wasn’t just a wishful thinking for a better life, a fantasy, or a pipe dream. He had no time for pious platitudes. He was far too cynical and sceptical to believe everything or anything he was told. He was a critical thinker who, over the year, developed a deeply reasoned understanding of God and his purposes. And he wanted me to explain it to you today.
Others here today will talk of Nathan. My task is different. It is to talk of God. But in talking of God we will come to understand Nathan better.
Let us now turn our attention away from Nathan to the Bible passage, which we just read from Romans 8. It’s the passage he chose for us today, because he found it so helpful as he wrestled in conscience preparing for his death, and as he suffered in pain and prepared for glory. It’s the passage that will explain Nathan to us.
Romans 8 explains that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. To simplify it – on such a hot day – I have three headings: 1) Suffering 2) Sovereignty 3) Certainty.
While our society tries to avoid thinking about suffering, and pretend all is well with the wonderful world; the Bible is so much more realistic. It is confronting and it reminds us of, and explains for us, the suffering of this world. Suffering, which at times is so acute, that we don’t know what to pray for. We’re in such weakness and pain, sorrow and anguish that all we can do is groan and sigh and of course, cry. See it there in verse 26:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
This last year has been like that as we prayed for healing in the face of conflicting, and yet increasingly, sad news of the spread of tumours. It can be like it today as we give joyful thanks to God for Nathan, and yet internally our hearts are breaking with sorrow as we grieve for what we’ve lost, and can’t retrieve. Yet note in that verse we’re not left alone in prayerless mumbling. For the Spirit of God turns our tears and sighs, our groans and heartaches, into prayers to our Father in heaven.
Which brings us to the
2) The Sovereignty of God
For as we come to God in prayer we’re reminded of what we know about our sovereign God, verse 28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
God rules as the sovereign; as the king; the ruler over all things so that all things work together for God’s good purpose in the lives of his children. There’s nothing outside of his care or control. Nothing that happened to Nathan this last year was outside of God’s control or God’s concern. Neither Nathan nor God lost the battle against cancer. It was all part and parcel of God’s good purpose for Nathan.
At first this sounds extraordinary, but God is God; he is sovereign; he doesn’t lose control. And he has a good purpose for his children that is explained in verse 29:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
What is God’s good purpose for his children? What is the good life for which we’re destined to live? It’s not a pain-free life in this world. The Bible is quite clear that in this world, man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upwards.
This last year of suffering has been awful. This last week of death is dreadful. But God’s plan for his children is to be conformed to the likeness of his glorious son: Jesus. And that does not mean a pain-free life in this world but it means becoming like Jesus: the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, the crucified Christ. The man who bore all our sorrows and griefs. The man who laid down his life for others so that in God’s good time we may become like him in glory, sharing his glory, and bringing him glory by being like him.
We see in verse 30 how God’s sovereignty works out in our lives:
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
That passage is so confident of God’s sovereignty in our salvation that it speaks of our salvation as a ‘done-deal’: those whom he justified he also glorified.
Which brings us to the last point.
• We know of the suffering of this world.
• We know of the sovereignty of God over this world, using everything including our suffering to bring us to the glory we will share with Christ.
• We therefore know with certainty our glorious future.
They say there’s only two certainties about our future: death and taxes. Quite clearly if you’re rich enough you can avoid taxes so the only certainty is death. And death is so unpleasant and unknown that most people not only fight against it but also go into denial pretending, imagining that it’s not going to happen, or worse, that it doesn’t matter.
But once you know the sovereignty of God working in all things for our glorification, then you have a certainty about the future, including death. That’s what our passage is about, with its mounting tide of rhetorical questions in verses 31-36 and magnificent affirmation of victory in verses 37-39. It’s about our certainty.
The simple response to God’s sovereign plan for our glory is the rhetorical challenge of verse 31: If God is for us, who can be against us? All the rest flows from the central challenge that though there are many things against us, none of them can stand against us if God is for us.
Do you think God is stingy? That he’s going to go back on his promise? That he’s not going to give us glory? Think again! Verse 32: he didn’t spare his own Son in order to save us. What do you think he is now going to deny us? If God is for us – who can be against us?
Do you think somebody will be able to point the finger at us, pointing out our sins and declaring us unfit for glory? Think again! Verse 33: it’s God himself – the judge of all the world – who has justified us by sending his son to die for us. If God is for us – who can be against us?
Do you think that somebody will be able to condemn us? Think again! Verse 34: Christ Jesus died for us. Christ Jesus was raised to heaven and now intercedes, pleads our case for us. If God is for us – who can be against us?
Do you think that somebody or something could come between us and Christ’s love for us? Could come between us and God’s love for us? Think again! Verse 35: he loved us so much that he gave his Son for us. His Son so loved us that he died for us. Suffering will not keep us from God in whatever form it comes: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword. Indeed, the Old Testament in verse 36 predicts our suffering as normal. If God is for us – who can be against us?
So, our certainty rises to this magnificent affirmation of victory in verse 37:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Once you’ve grasped the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; once you’ve understood the Sovereignty of God controlling all of our life, including your suffering and pain and cancer; once you’ve understood that this Sovereign Lord loves you so much that he willingly lay down his life for you, paying for all your sin, enduring all your hell; once you have been grasped by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord then you can look death in the face with all its horror and anguish and know – If God is for us, who can be against us?
Neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor the present nor the future nor powers or anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Nathan knew this love of God in Christ Jesus and as soon as he understood the gospel he wanted his friends and families to be told about it. Nathan built his short life on this love of God in Christ Jesus. And so, when suffering came to him – came in a way that nobody would have predicted, came with a terrible terminus in death – when his suffering came he, didn’t change his direction; he didn’t give up caring for others. While he hurt – and even the medicines given to him hurt – he still remained steadfast and confident in his suffering, knowing the sovereignty of God was at work in his glorification.
But he did take stock of his life. He knew he was a sinner, so he searched the scriptures again to base his salvation in the certainty of God’s word. And when he saw this passage in particular, he knew how his confidence was founded on the love of God in Christ Jesus. Which is why today we don’t so much honour Nathan but we give thanks to God for him. Why today, we’re not worried about Nathan’s future but we give thanks to God for his salvation. Why today we can rejoice in our sorrow and praise God in Nathan’s death.
But Nathan would be very disappointed in me, in fact he would, not-so-gently, chide me if I didn’t also ask you whether you have this same certainty. Whether you know God who so loves his people. Whether you are hearing in the death of his servant Nathan the call to come to God, hearing the call to come back to God.
Young man, young woman, do you hear the call of God? Listen and come to him. Parents, do you hear the call of God? Listen and come to him. Old man, old woman, do you hear the call of God? Listen and come to him. For rest assured one day you too, with Nathan, will die. One day you too will meet your maker. And as a sinner like Nathan what will you say on that day? What will be your response? What will you say in your defence? Who will intercede on your behalf?
I know Nathan’s response: “Jesus Christ has died for me.” I know who intercedes on Nathan’s behalf: Jesus Christ who died for him and rose again to sit at God’s right hand.
That is why with sorrowful joy we give thanks to God and sing his praises. For nothing will separate Nathan from the love of God in Christ Jesus.